by Reid Fitzsimons (note: this article is generally critical of Silent Spring but is reasonably balanced and discusses a number of redeeming aspects of the book and author)
First some basics- Silent Spring is a book written by Rachael Carson and published in 1962. It primarily discussed the negative environmental effects that liberal use of chemicals, especially in the form of herbicides and pesticides, had on the environment. It was and continues to be considered a landmark book and is largely viewed as the progenitor of the modern environmental movement, and all that it entails. As such, the book is often mentioned disparagingly among conservatives. I was no stranger to mocking the book and, hypocritically, was armed only with references made by others- I hadn’t actually read it. Hence one day I figured out how to download it for free in one format, convert it to a .pdf, and load it on to my Nook.
Fortunately Silent Spring proved to be pretty readable and not too long at a bit over 200 pages. Later I am going to assert there is a conservative interpretation possible of the book, but before that a brief aside. I just happened to review a Common Core literature book (Timeless Voices, Timeless Themes) used in the local high school, which includes the introductory chapter of Silent Spring (this is considered literature?). Not surprisingly the associated comments are highly favorable and slanted, to say the least, including, ‘…a chilling and well-documented warning about the dangers of pesticides.” Nothing remotely negative is offered, including any discussion of the millions (literally) of children who have perished likely due to self-serving and shortsighted environmental policies largely initiated by Silent Spring. But what the heck, one can’t dispute Common Core.
Similar to the Bible the book begins in paradise, “…a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings.” Here, “…great ferns and wildflowers delighted the traveler’s eye….” and “Even in the winter the roadsides were places of beauty, where countless birds came to feed….” In this wonderful place everyone had lots of cool stuff subsidized by the government and there was no wealth or income inequality except for the rich elite progressives, but that engendered no angst among the masses. In this idyllic town The Splendid Table was always available on streaming radio and PBS was fully funded by the government, as were condoms. In this bucolic utopia only homosexuals got married and all pregnancies ended in free abortions except for a handful of cute white male babies born to artificially inseminated lesbians. There was total tolerance and acceptance of everyone except for anyone who didn’t comply with government mandates or embrace monolithic progressive thought, and students of Asian descent didn’t do better on math tests. Okay, I admit I made up the latter part of this paragraph, as indicated by the absence of quotation marks.
Similar to the Bible, this paradise was lost: “Then a strange blight crept over the area…,” “Some evil spell had settled on the community…,” and “Everywhere was the shadow of death.” At this point as I was reading the book I consulted my memory for any American town that was so utterly devastated by the use of chemicals, etc but couldn’t recall any. This mystery was explained at the end of the chapter: “This town does not actually exist, but it might easily have a thousand counterparts…” the author explained.
Probably more than anything else, Silent Spring is presented as a book of science, and Rachael Carson did have credentials in the form of a Master’s degree in Zoology. Though the science is presented in a manner superficially convincing, it is pretty apparent the science, while valid to some degree, is pretty loose: the melodramatic tripe and disingenuousness of the introductory chapter is pure emotionalism. Perhaps the most egregious example of her misdirection can be found in chapter 14, which discusses cancer. Obviously there are very well established links between cancer and environmental insult, but lets look at this statement: “It is hardly surprising, therefore, that we are now aware of an alarming increase in malignant disease. The increase itself is no mere matter of subjective impressions. The monthly report of the Office of Vital Statistics for July 1959 states that malignant growths…accounted for 15 percent of the deaths in 1958 compared with only 4 percent in 1900.”
It is appropriate to analyze this statistical sleight of hand. In 1900 the four leading causes of death in the US, in descending order, were pneumonia, TB, diarrhea and other intestinal diseases, and heart disease. These totaled 676 per 100,000, out of total rate of mortality of 1719. Move forward to 1958 and the top four causes of death were heart disease, malignancies, strokes, and accidents. These totaled 677 per 100,000 with the overall mortality rate being 951 per 100,000 (source cdc.gov, Leading Causes of Death 1900-1998). Rachel Carson, either with intent to mislead or out of ignorance, failed to take into account the seismic advances that occurred through 58 years and two World Wars, you know, those things we call antibiotics, public health sanitation measures, immunizations, etc. If you still don’t comprehend this, the leading causes of death in 1900 were mostly infectious diseases; because their occurrences were later significantly diminished, then of course other diseases replaced them. We see this type of pseudo-medical statistics often today, especially in the endless pursuit of government funding. The diagnostic criterion of a disease is liberally redefined and suddenly the incidence skyrockets. Or, in the case of many cancers, a primary risk factor is age; hence the rate naturally increases because we live longer. I could easily see some dolt like Al Gore rattling on about such non-sense and actually believing it because he’s a moron. Rachel Carson should have had a higher standard.
I’m not going to go chapter-by-chapter but will present the primary themes, and I will attempt to be true to them. Silent Spring is very much set in the post-war time period, where everything was big and more was better. Though, as is well presented, various pesticides and herbicides had been around for decades, there were many war-related advances in chemical engineering. These included DDT and organo-phosphate insecticides and herbicides such as 2-4D, and 2-4-5T, later known as Agent Orange (I’m proud to mention I took a 2-week chemical-biological-radiological course in the Army in the 1970s). We combined this new chemical technology with a sense that, if we could conquer the Axis powers and the atom, then we could certainly control the natural world.
This control would manifest itself entomologically and agriculturally- there was neither annoying insect nor pesky weed we couldn’t eradicate, and we entered this endeavor with great enthusiasm and little thought to even the possibility of untoward consequences. She described at one point a Monty-Pythonesque scenario in which airplanes suddenly appeared over middle-class suburbs to saturate lawns, houses, and people alike with toxic chemicals to save the citizenry from some bothersome pest of the moment. While she often correlates massive chemical use with nuisance level problems, the author does not fail to mention more noble intentions to control significant diseases and crop conditions. Also, to her credit, she mentions intriguing, if not always viable, alternatives to mass environmental poisoning, as compared to her environmental descendents who offer nothing but demanding someone else demand that someone else should do or not do something.
Perhaps the greatest contribution of Silent Spring was to introduce and document the inevitable chain reactions that occur when nature is severely disturbed. Sure, we might free ourselves from some temporary agricultural blight, but in doing so we killed off beneficial insects, for example, whose absence allowed more severe consequences than the original problem ever caused. Hence, the concept of ecology was popularly introduced, and this was a good thing.
I assumed prior to reading Silent Spring that it would be predictable in proclaiming that greedy Big Corporations were happy to rape the land and allow people to die for the sake of profits, i.e. the typical stereotype. While chemical companies are often mentioned and largely in a pejorative manner, what impressed me most was a recurrent theme that government was the source and means by which these environmental degradations occurred. At all levels- local, state, federal- we find bureaucrats, usually in concert with the settled science of the time, identifying problems that may or may not have existed, at times dramatizing the severity of the problem, promising they will fix it, and imposing their version of a solution, often with calamitous results. In other words, progressive government! Perhaps the best example of this detailed in Silent Spring was the US Dept. of Agriculture’s effort, reminiscent of a Three Stooges short, to eradicate the fire ant from the Deep South. Without going into great detail, these ants were a nuisance, the government somehow decided they had to be dealt with by spraying millions of acres of land with toxic insecticides, huge quantities of wildlife were destroyed in the process but the fire ants easily survived. Go figure.
Unwittingly I suspect, Rachel Carson documented not only the horrific effects of unrestrained use of chemicals in the environment but the implementation and facilitation of such folly by the progressive government mentality. Hence my mention in the second paragraph that a conservative interpretation of Silent Spring is not unwarranted.
Of course no analysis of Silent Spring is complete without a discussion of DDT and it’s surrounding controversy, which could easily fill up volumes but will be quickly summarized here. DDT is an insecticide largely developed during WW2 that proved almost miraculous in the control of mosquitoes, hence malaria. Though very few Americans have a clue as to the nature of malaria, we often refer to it as if we do. Imagine a typical well-off suburban progressive who drives his SUV to the airport and hops on a plane to his much-anticipated eco-vacation. On a tropical beach he counts turtles for a couple of hours each morning then kicks back, drinks daiquiris, and perhaps re-reads the Audacity of Hope. Previously he checked out the CDC website and discovered anti-malarial drugs were recommended. As he nods off he thinks how delicious it will be recounting at the next wine-tasting back home not just his huge contribution to the planet but how he is quite the adventurer, braving a malaria endemic area to help heal mother earth.
For our courageous green hero malaria is something theoretical, easily prevented with a once a week pill. In reality malaria is a vile life sucking disease. There are several subtypes of malaria but we are talking about a microscopic parasite that kills in different ways, especially by destroying blood from within- the normally red membrane of the eyes becomes white as snow as the patient dies. Needless to say, those most susceptible are infants and young children, and they die by the hundreds of 1,000s every year, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and India. DDT was used post-WW2 in malaria epidemic regions with great success and later some failures, probably due to developed resistance, but the use of DDT was essentially banned globally under pressure from the US in the years following publication of Silent Spring, the establishment of the EPA, and the growth of environmentalism. Perhaps unknown to most is that malaria existed endemic in the US into post-war times. We were able to finally eradicate it with, of course, DDT.
The proximate DDT issue, what caused all the fuss, was the decline of raptor bird population, specifically the hypothesis that DDT caused thinning of eggshells, hence fewer birds were born (I don’t now recall if the egg shell theory was actually mentioned in Silent Spring). This theory was and remains controversial, but emotionally impotent people love to ban things without regard to either facts or consequences; it makes them feel powerful. Besides, we had already obtained huge benefit from the use of DDT, illustrating one of the basic tenets of environmentalism- we got ours, tough luck for everyone else. A famous progressive leader purportedly once said, “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” In present day America we become ecstatic when a young black man is killed by a white person, regardless of the circumstances- nothing feels quite as satisfying as outrage. But when a million, or ten million, African children die, who has the time when there is another anti-fracking rally or avant-garde theater production to attend. Ultimately the question is: who are we to possess the resources to prevent the horrible deaths of millions of (black and brown) children but demand they be withheld? Presently where there is some limited and judicious use of DDT it continues to be very effective, but any widespread use would be contrary to the environmentalist narrative and this cannot be allowed.
Now and then I read a conservative perspective on Silent Spring and Rachel Carson and am dismayed to see some pretty scathing insults directed her way. She died of complications of breast cancer at the relatively young age of 56 in 1964. I have no idea if she was a kind and thoughtful person or the opposite but, to use a bad analogy, she wrote a book that was egregiously exploited by others much like firearms manufacturers make pistols that may be exploited by murderers. While one might feel some generic animosity towards her considering the often tragic end result of her book, in the conservative world feelings don’t become facts simply because we feel them. Personally I believe Rachel Carson would have been very dismayed that her writings were used to justify the slaughter of innocents.
Silent Spring is worthy of some respect and perhaps a larger amount of disdain. I admired the effort Rachel Carson put into her opus but she did not hold true to an acceptable scientific standard- she made it sound more objective and scientific than it actually is. A number of times she mentioned alternatives to the wholesale drenching of nature in toxins and the environmental devastation this wrought, whether well intended or more commonly just the government doing what it tends to do. If no one has already done so, it would be fascinating to see if these various alternatives were implemented and if they proved efficacious. Ultimately the lesson of Silent Spring is typically conservative- don’t do or not do something simply because it fits a narrative and, whenever possible, do it thoughtfully with consideration of potential consequences.